Waiting for Armageddon

 

Stroll through one of the gateways in the 16th-century walls that surround Jerusalem's Old City. Walk a few hundred metres, through noisy, narrow alleys lined with Palestinian stalls selling meat and vegetables, pottery and icons, and you find yourself at the foot of the Temple Mount. Another short distance, up a little incline, and you step on to the Mount itself - a site so holy in Judaism that Orthodox Jews will not set foot here, and revered by Moslems as the point from which the Prophet Muhammad, astride a winged animal, ascended to heaven.

In front of you now is a large, bumpilystone-paved expanse, interrupted by two places of Islamic worship: the rather shabby-domed al-Aqsa mosque, the "Distant Mosque" mentioned in the Quran, and the glistening, gold-topped seventh-century Dome of the Rock, modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Take off your shoes and enter the Dome of the Rock and there, in its centre, is a lighted slab of stone - the "Rock of Foundation" marking, according to some, Muhammad's precise point of ascent; according to others, the Holy of Holies, the room in the first and second Jewish Temples that only the High Priest could enter, and from which an impure High Priest would never emerge.

If Jerusalem is the unique Holy City, a spiritual centre for the three great faiths, then the Temple Mount is its heart - the focal point of positive religious energy the world over. But as recent history has underlined, it can serve as the focal point of much that is negative too. And today, a year before the dawn of a new millennium, there are ominous hints that the approach of the year 2,000 could signal the unleashing of all manner of dangerous energy, centred on the Temple Mount. So many visitors to Jerusalem succumb to overwhelming, destabilising spiritual experiences in the city that a medical name has been given to the phenomenon - Jerusalem Syndrome. In most cases, it's a relatively harmless and short-lived illness: the sufferer, possibly believing him or herself a reincarnation of Jesus, or John the Baptist, or the Virgin Mary, is struck by the overwhelming urge to dress in purest white, and to preach at the holy sites that abound here, and at more commercial venues, like the downtown BenYehudah pedestrian mall.

But some fall victim to a more dangerous compulsion, invariably involving the Temple Mount itself. Thirty years ago, an Australian fundamentalist Christian named Michael Rohan set fire to Al-Aqsa, saying he hoped it could then be replaced by a third Jewish Temple. In 1982, a Jewish American, Alan Goodman, opened fire on the Mount, killing one man and injuring four more, under the influence, he subsequently claimed, of a "divine command". Later that same decade, a group of right-wing Jewish extremists, most of them residents of West Bank settlements, conceived a plot to blow up both of the mosques atop the Temple Mount, but were arrested before they could execute it. The fear now is that the advent of the new millennium could trigger new violence - wrought by extremist groups convinced that the dawn of the year 2,000 signals The End, and driven by religious passion to initiating that ending themselves.

Among some Orthodox Jews, especially since the "recapturing" of divinely promised Biblical land in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, belief that the era of the "Messiah," of redemption, is near has been growing for some years now. But it is among Christians that the date January 1st, 2000 resonates most. The Pope has highlighted the millennium, 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus, as "an extraordinarily Great Jubilee" and was talking, at least until recently, of making a papal visit here next year and encouraging all Christians to do so. For some Christian preachers, the founding of the state of Israel 50 years ago is one of numerous signs that Christ's return to Jerusalem for a 1,000-year reign of peace is imminent. And for some Christian fundamentalist leaders, the millennium date is loaded not with celebration, but with overtones of apocalypse and redemption.

In an article for The Jerusalem Report magazine last February, the writer Gershom Gorenberg quoted the American evangelist Mike Evans, author of a recent book entitled Jerusalem Betrayed, predicting a terrible, final war at the dawn of the new millennium, preceding Jesus's return. Mr Gorenberg's piece also quoted the US televangelist John Hagee predicting that "the peace process will lead to the most devastating war Israel has ever known. After that war, the longed-for Messiah will come."

The briefest of surfs on the Internet turns up sites highlighting the Texas-based "House of Yahweh" cult, an apparent doomsday group, inspired by an American former kibbutz worker named Jacob Hawkins, predicting an end-of-millennium, end-of-the-world scenario, as a consequence of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, that will kill off 80 per cent of the world's population. The cursor alights on unsigned sermons predicting the imminent "sudden and dramatic appearance on the world scene" of the Antichrist, eventually "leading to the final great apostasy spoken of in the Bible". Click a few more times, and hysterical advertising pops up for the newly-published, 140-page book, Jerusalem - Final Countdown to Armageddon, with its breathless assertion that "Jerusalem, which has withstood and outlived the ravages of time, is now standing at the brim of a cataclysmic display of Superhuman Power, in the Battle for Universal Supremacy against demonic forces, intent on crushing the imminent, culminating fulfilment of Prophetic Script."

Though it might be tempting to dismiss some of the more dramatic millennial writings and predictions as harmless and irrelevant, it would also be irresponsibly complacent. Belief in the imminent apocalypse was central to the mind-set of the Branch Davidians, dozens of whom died in the 1993 Waco, Texas, siege and assault by federal agents, and to the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, centred in Japan, responsible for spreading Sarin gas in a Tokyo subway station in 1995, killing 11 passengers and injuring over 5000.

And in the past few weeks, reports in Israel have underlined the dangers here. First, unspecified foreign intelligence organisations are said to have helped the Israeli authorities track down and intercept two members of an American fundamentalist movement who had entered Israel bent on carrying out an act of violence to accelerate Jesus's Second Coming. Then, the news broke that members of at least one Christian cult are already gathering with a millennial apocalypse in mind, amid talk of mass suicides.

Monte Kim Miller, leader of the Denver, Colorado-based cult "Concerned Christians," disappeared from his home town earlier this year, having persuaded several dozen of his followers to sell their homes, quit their jobs and join him on a trek whose eventual destination was Jerusalem. Mr Miller, said by the anxious relatives of some of his followers to be both deeply charismatic and dangerously manipulative, is reported to have become convinced that he is imbued with divine spirit, that Armageddon will arrive shortly before the new millennium, that he is destined for resurrection, and that his followers will need to kill themselves if they are to be resurrected too.

In late November, Israeli police chiefs confirmed that several of the cult members had indeed arrived in the city. Rather shamefacedly, the police admitted that they had tailed the cultists to an apartment in a quiet Jerusalem suburb, but had apparently been spotted, and had now lost track of them.

Among the most worrying aspects of the "Concerned Christians" episode is the fact that the Israeli authorities were warned several weeks in advance by police officials in Denver that the cultists were headed this way and given lists of names, that the Israeli police declared publicly that they would turn back Mr Miller and any of his disciples at the airport, and that the cultists nevertheless found their way into the country and have now gone to ground - last seen, according to Hebrew press reports, inside the Old City itself.

The Israeli authorities have patted themselves loudly on the back in recent weeks for developing a multi-million pound programme for boosting security on and around Temple Mount, with the millennium very much in mind. And yet the authorities' failure to deal with the "Concerned Christians" suggests that previous, fatal errors in handling sensitive Temple Mount-related issues have yet to be corrected. In the most recent such incident, in the autumn of 1996, the Israeli government - secretly and in the middle of the night - drilled a new exit for an ancient water tunnel that runs alongside the Temple Mount. Palestinians, some genuinely concerned that Israel was seeking to destabilise the mosques in order to replace them with a new Temple, responded by rioting inside the Old City, elsewhere in Jerusalem, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Several days of furious gun-battles followed, with the supposed partners in the Israeli army and the Palestinian police force turning their guns on each other, and 70 Palestinians and 15 Israelis getting killed.

Palestinian hyper-sensitivity to Israeli plans for the Temple Mount is exacerbated by the work of a yeshivah - a Jewish study centre - in the Old City, which is using donations from Jewish and Christian philanthropists to reconstruct the various ritual objects, fixtures and fittings from the first and second Temples in preparation for a hoped-for construction of the third Temple. It is exacerbated, too, by the activities of a right-wing Jewish movement known as the Temple Mount Faithful, whose members periodically seek to lay the foundations for a third Temple atop the mount. Rumours that the Faithful were on their way up to the Mount in 1990 triggered a massive riot among Moslem worshippers, who threw stones down on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below, and were then countered by panicked Israeli police who opened fire and killed some 20 of them.

These incidents, of course, had nothing to do with the millennium. But they underline the potential for violence. Stir in a combination of Jewish messianist expectation, cultist hysteria, Islamic hypersensitivity and police incompetence, focusing on a small area that generates incredible religious fervour, in a period viewed by many as being of tremendous significance, and you have a potent and potentially terrifying mix.

Israel is expecting a huge influx of Christian tourists for the millennium - perhaps as many as six million between the middle and the end of 1999. On the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City, a former trailer-park owner from New York who now calls himself Brother David has spent the past four years getting ready for what he is certain will be his front-row view of the return of Christ. He says he has helped many other believers find cheap homes in the area, and that he's in touch with still more who are on the point of selling up their homes overseas and coming to Jerusalem. A police spokeswoman insists that Israel is ready to deal with any and all complications. But few would dare predict what those complications might be. And the Israeli track-record hardly inspires confidence that the new millennium will not begin with a red dawn.